TALLAHASSEE — By taking a six-figure job at a state college, House Speaker Ray Sansom has focused attention on a pattern of behavior that has gone on largely unchecked for decades in Florida's higher education system.
Even in a time of bleak finances, with curbs on enrollment and spikes in tuition, at least 18 other current or recently retired legislators are employed or draw income throughout the system — six at the University of South Florida alone, as well as the wife of a state senator.
All schools rely heavily on legislative clout for their yearly appropriations, as Sansom, R-Destin, proved by securing $35-million for Northwest Florida State College in the past two years. Yet lawmakers and colleges stoutly deny there's an inherent conflict of interest in having college employees sitting on committees that oversee higher education funding and policy.
A review by the Times/Herald identified the 18 other current or recently retired lawmakers who work full time, part time or draw income from contracts with state universities and community colleges. A few were educators before joining the Legislature, but others scored sweet promotions after being elected.
The practice is by no means new and involves both political parties. Current lawmakers facing criticism point to former Democratic House Speakers Jon Mills, who ran the University of Florida's law school after leaving office, and T.K. Wetherell, who became president of Florida State University after his legislative career ended.
For lawmakers, the jobs provide steady income that can last beyond term limits. Some even "double dip," accepting both government salaries simultaneously, even in session, when it would be difficult to do both jobs.
For the universities and colleges, a lawmaker-employee is instant access to a world where many budgetary decisions are made behind closed doors.
"I'm an elected unpaid lobbyist," said Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, a physician who makes $200,000 teaching at the USF medical school. "I help all education, and I help USF."
Homan negotiated the contract job, which wasn't advertised, in late 2003 after a string of special legislative sessions during the year prevented him from seeing patients and put his private practice in the red. Homan had taught at the school years earlier.
Most educational institutions defend the practice of hiring lawmakers by pointing out the unique depth and breadth of experience a lawmaker adds to their staff, like an understanding of statewide education pressures.
"I don't see them as a valve for money tanks to the Legislature," said St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler, who recruited Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, as an economic development vice president to replace an outgoing lawmaker from St. Petersburg. "I chose them because they're great advocates for public education."
It's inevitable that Florida's part-time lawmakers have outside jobs. Although leaders make slightly more, a typical lawmaker is paid $30,336.
Rep. Nick Thompson, R-Fort Myers, is a lawyer who was hired by Edison State College as a special assistant and legal counsel in February for $88,000. The newly created job was never advertised publicly, but a spokeswoman said Thompson had good local ties and a solid resume.
"No matter what business I work for, there's always going to be the question of: 'Well, did it help that they're a legislator that they got that job?' " Thompson said. "I don't now that I could ever disprove the concept that I wouldn't have gotten the job otherwise."
After a few months on the job, Thompson helped get Edison on the list of nine community colleges that could offer four-year degree programs for the first time.
Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington lawyer who specializes in higher education compensation matters, said lawmakers who work for institutions of higher education should recuse themselves from votes that could pose a conflict.
"The legislator may say, 'Well look, I'm bringing home the bacon to my home district,' but that doesn't justify an abuse of the process," said Cotton, who has worked for Florida universities.
The Times and Herald found that two-thirds of lawmakers identified as college employees either sponsored higher education legislation or served on committees that control college budgets.
Former Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, was the House's key budget negotiator on school issues for the past two years and was also the lawyer for St. John's River Community College. Last year, as budgets were being slashed for community colleges, Pickens steered $7.4-million in school construction money to the college — above what the state had requested.
Pickens said all he did was convert an approved project that was supposed to be funded over two years into one year.
"I sought permission from the governor's office and internally to move that project up on the list one year because it was my last year in the Legislature,'' he said.
Now out of office because of term limits, Pickens on Thursday was sworn in as the school's president, making $219,000 a year. Do colleges like his benefit from having lawmakers on the payroll?
"Not necessarily,'' Pickens said. "It's much more important for the college and university and any public entity to have relationships with legislators."
More than half of the lawmakers working in higher education had been in the education field before they got to office.
A few lawmakers don't take their college pay in the months when they are in session with the Legislature. Among them is Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, a student adviser at USF, who took a huge pay cut in 2007 because the Legislature kept meeting. His USF salary dwindled to $25,500.
But even with his principled stand on salaries, Justice sees no conflict with working on higher education committees that oversee his employer.
"I represent our community, and USF is a large part of our community," he said. "You can see from my financial disclosure that I've not benefited largely from this arrangement."
Other lawmakers who have long worked in higher education climbed the ladder while working for the Legislature.
Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, had spent 20 years teaching English prep classes as an adjunct instructor at Chipola College when she was elected to replace her husband, who died in 2005.
After her election, Coley stopped teaching and became special assistant to the president for business and community affairs. The nonadvertised job now pays her $60,000 and is part time, to complement her legislative job. Her district office and her college office are the same.
"I'm saving the taxpayers money," Coley said. "I'm working part time with both and it allows me to spend more time in each one."
When the criticism got too loud, Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, decided to quit taking the $2,300-a-week salary for the one-year contract running the Florida Center for Reading Research — a program she got funded at Florida State University — while running the Senate's education budget committee.
"When people thought it was inappropriate, I decided I'll maintain my reputation. So I volunteered the rest of the contract and then quit," Lynn said. "Everybody's different. It means a great deal to me to maintain my reputation that I've had for 14 years."